En Gaard

Cartoonist and portraitist Frank Gaard has faced off against the anti-defamation league, art-school administration, and his landlord and remains a defiantly good artist

"Just prior to [the firing], I also had marriage problems," Gaard continues, "and I ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Things were not so good....I don't know. Maybe I reached some sort of Waterloo at the time. It seems like ancient history now, but it was ruinous. But I was a survivor. I wasn't somebody who lay down and died. I am alive and still doing my work....I've read a lot of Baudelaire. I always liked that despite all the horrors he experienced, he kept writing. I think that's the bellwether as to whether or not your work will survive to posterity."


The events of 1986 helped fuel Frank Gaard's art, as he sought a way to vent feelings of rage and disappointment. "After the protests, I went more in the direction of erotic art," says Gaard. "My investigations grew more intense after that time."

"People don't look at history till it kicks them in the ass": Frank Gaard
"People don't look at history till it kicks them in the ass": Frank Gaard

In 1991 Gaard founded a new publication along with artist Stu Mead called Manbag, which would take Artpolice's most explicit imagery to new extremes. Manbag featured sex acts on nearly every page, and some imagery stretched the limits of good taste--little girls getting off with big bad wolves, for instance.

"I think Manbag is extremely challenging," says local painter Dick Brewer. "But I like that sort of stuff going on....I'm not always drawn to certain imagery, but I think [free speech] is a basic right we have to hold onto."

Given Gaard's core determination to stir up the art audience, it seems inevitable that his troubles did not end with his firing. He has not held a regular job since leaving MCAD, and he recently was forced to move. Gaard fumes that his landlord evicted him and sold the duplex after having amassed a full collection of his work. The landlord, Leo Kuelbs Jr. (who himself puts out a zine), describes the building's sale as a business decision--it was a good time to pull out of the market--and says he harbors no ill will. He adds that he has even visited the artist's new studio digs. Gaard is resentful, nonetheless. "What a schmuck," he says. "He got his collection. His new place has a room of my stuff. It looks like a baseball-card collection."

It is precisely this characteristic of Gaard's--the inclination to fulminate against the slights of the world--that many people respect about him. "I have the utmost respect for Frank," said Dick Brewer. "He's been a great presence in town. Frank polarizes people. He's a wonderful burr under the saddle of general consciousness."

Though Gaard's spirits seem low at present, his art has lightened in recent years. "Maybe my vision is kind of comic," he says. "I mean this not in a bad sense, but in an operatic sense. My work is like the operas of caricature-- like Carmen, not like Wagner. I like the idea of life being laughable. I mean, panties are funny, kind of in the same way fire hydrants are funny for dogs. They're not funny in our society, but in France they're funny. My dad was born in Europe. Maybe that's part of it. There's the sense in America that we can't enjoy a good shit."

In the 1990s Gaard gave up publishing his underground zines once and for all--ending the run of Artpolice in 1994, and of Manbag, in 1996. His current creations are mostly portraits--a way, he says, to connect with people. He has depicted many of the mainstays of the local arts scene: writer Emily Carter, for instance, No Name Exhibitions director Christi Atkinson, and artist Doug Padilla. Gaard's apartment contains dozens and dozens of portraits, all done in bright acrylic paint on pieces of heavy Arches archival paper.

As you might expect, Gaard is defiant in his painting: He does it as he sees fit, idiosyncratically manipulating the image of his sitters. He paints with garish colors in a flattened, cartoony style, sometimes adding collage elements that seem to have personal import to the sitter or the artist. Other faces feature strikingly expressive colors or altered features that reveal the artist's emotional state. Still others bear crude words and phrases whose meaning is rather vague.

One recent portrait that he pulls from the stack, of restaurateur Zander Dixon, focuses eerily on a chihuahua that the subject wanted included in the picture. In the painting, Dixon holds the big-eyed, oversize chihuahua at his waist, smack dab in the center of the painting. Oddly, the sitter's head is clipped off at the very top, seemingly because of the focus on the dog. It is as though the artist ran out of room, or thought it unimportant, to include Dixon in his entirety. Says Gaard with a shrug, "I spent most of my time on the dog because that was the deal."

Melissa Stang, who has been painted by Gaard three times, says sitting for the artist is a "fabulous experience. As a painter, sitting, I learn from just watching how Frank does things. He's unconventional--in his color choices, in the way he makes the picture. You can't believe the things he is doing. He puts a blue line down to make your nose, and you see the shadows in your face just from this weird green....When people sit for portraits now, they sort of represent a chance for Frank to teach. He talks about various subjects. We talked about the art world, people we used to know. We talked very candidly about who's a poser-loser and stuff like that. Frank is still very blunt."

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